UW News

July 21, 2005

Researchers view Lost City’s undersea vents from remotely from Mary Gates

All but four scientists taking part in a major expedition in the Atlantic Ocean starting this week are in a specialized command center in Mary Gates Hall on the University of Washington campus, a quarter of the world away from the ship they’re “on.”

Led in Mary Gates Hall by chief scientist Deborah Kelley, UW oceanographer, and at sea by Bob Ballard, the oceanographer credited with finding the wreck of the Titanic, the expedition marks the return to the Lost City hydrothermal vent field. The remarkable hydrothermal vent field serendipitously discovered in 2000 — which includes a massive 18-story vent taller than any seen before — is formed in a very different way from so-called black smoker vents studied since the 1970s.

“Having most of the members of a science party on land during an expedition has never been tried before. The approach will provide an opportunity for a much larger number of researchers to explore the oceans,” Kelley says. Twenty-one members of the science party will be at the UW using high speed Internet and satellites to view live images sent from the seafloor by unmanned remotely operated vehicles. The scientists will direct sampling of fluids, rocks and novel life forms and be in contact with pilots and navigators in the operations center on the NOAA vessel Ronald H. Brown.

“Normally on a deep-ocean expedition, I talk with the mission’s chief scientist across a table on the research vessel,” Ballard says. “In this case, we talk across the planet.”

The campus community and public are welcome to follow the voyage in these ways:

  • Visit http://www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov,  http://www.immersionpresents.org  or http://www.Jason.org/lostcity  
  • Beginning July 23 at 9 a.m. anyone with access to the Internet will be able to see live images from the ship at sea and, as available, from underwater robots as the explore the field by visiting one of the Web sites listed above and clicking on “Live Video.”
  • Thirty-minute programs will be broadcast in Mary Gates Hall, rooms 332/334, four times a day July 23 through Aug. 1, at 7, 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Members of the public are welcome but space is limited to the first 15 persons who arrive. (It won’t be possible to attend the 7 a.m. programs on Saturday and Sunday because Mary Gates Hall is locked.)

The science command center at the UW is a prototype shore-based facility capable of receiving real-time high-bandwidth audio, video and data streams from a vessel at sea. It is based on a command center at the University of Rhode Island, which will be the communications hub during the expedition. Major partners in the expedition include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Institute for Exploration, Jason Foundation for Education, Immersion Presents and National Geographic.

UWTV has been active in setting up the command center at the UW and is using this as a foundation for future expeditions at black smoker sites in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, Kelley says. As early as 2008, fiber-optic cabled observatories off our coast will provide 24/7 interaction with the ocean and streaming of high definition video continuously to researchers, educators and the public (http://www.neptune.washington.edu/). These ongoing efforts will prepare us for next generation science via telepresence, she says.

Water circulates through the Lost City vent field because of heat from a chemical reaction between seawater and the mantle rock on which Lost City sits, rather than by heat from volcanic activity or magma, which are responsible for driving hydrothermal venting at black smoker sites.

Black smokers get their name because it can appear as if smoke is billowing from the vents. What’s actually seen are dark iron and sulfur-rich minerals precipitating when scalding vent waters, as hot as 700 F, meet the icy-cold ocean depths. Water venting at Lost City, in comparison, is less than 200 F, which is hot enough to shimmer but not “smoke.” Because of the different chemistry, black-smoker vents are a darkly mottled mix of sulfide minerals whereas the Lost City vents are nearly 100 percent carbonate, the same material as limestone in caves, and range in colors from white to cream to gray.

Scientists at the UW and the four on the Brown are experts from the UW, NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Duke University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Harvard University and NASA.

Scientists are interested in learning more about Lost City because, if hydrothermal venting can occur without volcanism, it greatly increases the places on the seafloor where microbial life could have started, Kelley says. It also means explorers may have more places than previously thought to look for microbial life in the universe.